Wednesday, 30 April 2014

State of Play - Open Access: Extending the access to the research literature

Considering I attended this conference at the end of February, this blog post has been a little late in coming. But my recent attendance at the 37th annual UKSG conference, and subsequent blog posts about its content and the ease of networking at it, has reminded me that it’s not the only conference I’ve attended in recent months!

As with the UKSG conference, I wrote a blog post about this conference on open access for our library staff development blog. Whilst what appears below is, for the most part, what appeared there, I have included some perhaps somewhat contentious thoughts that are very much my own personal opinions. Whilst I could have stated these on our staff blog, I didn’t want to take the focus away from the content being discussed. Here, on my own blog, I’m happy for people to take away whatever they will from my own views!

Conference Report

A researcher writes their research. It is then sent off to an independent reviewer (such as a Learned Society) for peer review, before being published by the researcher’s university, which runs a campus-based publishing house.

Is this a nightmare scenario, a pipe dream, or the future as you see it? At the conference I attended entitled “State of Play – Open Access: Extending Access to the Research Literature” it was the ideal scenario that experts in Open Access came up with when asked “How would you ideally structure open access?”

The conference was excellent and fast-paced, with a lot of ideas and strong opinions on the topic of open access. Below I will talk about some of the main themes that captured my interest.
Gold Open Access

This is where the author (or more normally, the funder or university) pays for a piece of research, usually a journal article, to be made freely available to read on the publisher’s website. In contrast to this, green open access is when a version of a piece of research is made freely available online, usually via an institutional repository (such as the UWE Research Repository).

The Head of Science Information at the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) explained that the Research Council UK (RCUK’s) preference was for gold open access rather than green open access. This is because it gives immediate unrestricted access, and is then accessible to the widest audience possible. Articles on institutional repositories often have embargoes, and aren’t the final published versions. Whilst they are usually a good representative of the final version, I can see the argument against a system that provides delayed access to research.

In addition to this, green open access is helping to prop up an already broken subscription model. A number of speakers pointed out that whatever system we have in place, the business model for it needs to be sustainable. Whilst the green open access business model props up the current subscription model, the gold open access business model is scalable and therefore sustainable in the long run.

Not everybody agreed that gold open access was the way forward (although there was some discussion about how green and gold open access should not be mutually exclusive), but the speakers really got me thinking about, and have nearly managed to convince me, that gold open access is the best option.

This does lead on to some interesting scenarios though. If we do successfully implement a fully gold open access culture, there should no longer be any need for repositories or (dare I say it) Repository Managers. So I would be out of a job – as would a lot of other library staff who currently administer library subscriptions. However, I believe that a number of other jobs would spring up to replace them – there still needs to be an infrastructure in place to manage gold open access and article processing charges (APCS – see below), and I strongly believe this is a role librarians can take on. So perhaps it’s a case of different roles, rather than lost jobs.

Article Processing Charges (APCs)

In order to achieve full gold open access, universities have begun to pay publishers article processing charges, or APCs. If the research is RCUK funded, RCUK will often pay these APCs (via the university). However, speakers at the conference were mindful of how these charges worked, and more than once they warned against allowing big subscription deals to morph into the Big APC Deals. There was a suggestion that, instead of paying APCs per piece of research, we should be paying for each of the specific services that publishers carry out, such as peer review, separately.

The other difficulty with APCs is the complexity of the decision making steps that authors have to go through each time when applying for funding. The decisions they have to make at this stage (such as which Creative Commons licence to choose, what type of copyright agreement to sign) are different to decisions they have had to make in the past. Whilst library staff can help with this, if the infrastructure isn’t in place to enable this to happen, it could get very confusing for the author.

Open Access Infrastructure

Over the past ten years or so, an infrastructure has grown to support open access. This includes services such as SHERPA ROMEO (which provides information on publisher copyright policies), SHERPA FACT (which links together funder and publisher policies), and DOAJ (the Directory of Open Access Journals). All these services were originally set up as projects and are still being run on project money. This means that none of these services have robust sustainability plans, but are incredibly well used in the open access community. We therefore need to find a way to assess and select the critical services we need to support open access, and then determine how we will sustain this infrastructure.

The above topics weren’t the only ones discussed. Other areas of debate included Creative Commons Licenses, the current peer review system, and how other universities run their institutional repositories. I came back from the conference with a number of questions and ideas: “Why don’t we keep those stats? Why have we never tried to run a webinar? Do I really have a preference for gold or green open access?” Overall, an incredibly thought-provoking conference which has given me lots of good ideas to take forward. Not to mention lots of potentially unanswerable questions.

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